Epiphany 2019, of wise men and fools

Among the obstacles faced by the Magi, perhaps the greatest was the sheer indifference of the Israelites themselves. And yet, the Magi persisted, seeking this new born King. Our essay is based on a sermon from St. Jean Marie Vianney.

Let us consider what degree the persistence of the Wise men attained. On their arrival at Jerusalem, the star which had guided them on the journey disappeared. They imagined without doubt that they had reached the place where our Saviour was born, and so they expected that the whole of Jerusalem would be filled with joy at the birth of its Redeemer.

What astonishment was theirs to see that Jerusalem showed no signs of joy whatever and in fact, did not even know its Redeemer is born at all! The Jews are so surprised to see how the Wise men came to worship the Messiah, that the Wise men began to wonder why the event was announced to them at all. Instead of bolstering their hopes, it seemed to them that their faith was being tested.  Was it not rather calculated to deter them from their journey, and to tempt them to return home secretly, for fear that they might become the laughing stock of Jerusalem?

The greater number of us would have done this, if our faith had been so severely tried. It was not without a meaning that the star disappeared: it happened so that the Jews, who kept their eyes shut from such an event, might be called back to the faith; it was left to strangers to show them their blindness. But all this only served to strengthen the Magi’s resolution, instead of causing them to waver in it. Did the three holy kings allow themselves to be frightened after the brilliancy of that light had vanished? Did they give up? No, not at all!

Instead of relying on the indifferent  townsfolk, they searched out the sages of the royal court in Jerusalem for they knew that the prophecies which designated the place and the time of the Messiah’s birth were in the custody of these theologians. Fearlessly they entered Herod’s palace, and asked him where the new-born king of the Jews is, and they explained to him without fear that they have come to adore Him. Although the king was obviously offended at this speech, he was unable to prevent them from undertaking this significant journey; they courageously insisted on seeking their God at any cost.

And yet, how different is it with us, who shrink from the least ridicule! For today, we are ruled by what others think of us, and the thought of being “unfriended” drives us to keep our religious beliefs to ourselves. Even when we see the holy name of Jesus Christ used as a  curse word, encased in vulgar language from the mouths of those who hate Him, we say nothing. He looks in vain for one of us to defend Him or His Mother. Today, who is courageous enough to make the sign of the cross when eating in a restaurant?  Today even as at the first epiphany, the Christ Child is found bereft of any worldly splendour; but who today adores Him despite the abject poverty of His surroundings?

St. Jean Vianney reminds us,

“O, what confusion will be ours, if the Redeemer on the Day of Judgment compares our behavior with that of the Wise men, our forefathers in the faith, who would sooner forsake and sacrifice all things, than to resist the voice of grace, which called them. Let us see how great was their constancy. The theologians told them the prophecies announced that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and that the time had come. They no sooner received this answer, than they set out for that town.

“Might they not expect that it would happen to them, as it had happened to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, namely, that the crowd of people would be so great that they would find no room? Could they possibly doubt but that the Jews, who had waited four thousand years for the coming of the Messiah, would hasten in great multitudes to prostrate themselves before the crib of this new born King and acknowledge Him as their Redeemer and their God?

“But no one stirred; they were living in darkness, and they remained in it. A true picture of the sinner, who continually hears the voice of God, calling him to renounce his sins, and be converted, instead of which he only plunges deeper into sin, and becomes more and more hardened.”

And so the three holy kings set forth alone from Jerusalem. They persisted in seeking this newly born King and set out again towards Bethlehem.  Almost immediately on leaving the city the wonderful star preceded them, and seemed to take them by the hand so as to conduct them to that poor dwelling place of poverty and want.

When they arrived, the star stood still as if to say: “Here is He whom you seek. the long-awaited One. Approach and adore Him Who was conceived from eternity, infinite power and majesty bound in poor naked flesh, born to suffer and die in ignominy, spurned by the intellectuals, scorned even by His own chosen people. Do not turn away!  For it is He Who hurls the lightning from the heights of heaven. His look makes hell to tremble; He is the Avenger and He alone will judge His people.”

These holy kings feel at this moment their hearts burning with love within them; these noble kings kneel humbly before this poor infant lying between two lowly animals in a manger, and they acknowledge Him to be their God and Redeemer. O what a precious thing is faith! Instead of being startled at the aspect of poverty, it touched and edified them. After such a long and difficult trip, it seemed to them that they could never tire of gazing on the Redeemer of the world, the King of heaven and earth, the Lord of all creation, reigning as He did from this humble manger. They marveled at this mystery of mysteries.

The astonishment which filled their hearts was so overpowering, that they gave to God all that they had, all that they could give Him. At this moment they consecrated themselves and all they owned to this Divine Infant. According to Oriental custom, they honored this new born Prince with gold, frankincense and myrrh, thus recognizing His Divinity, His boundless dominion, and His humanity. His divinity by the frankincense, which belongs to God alone; His humanity by the myrrh, which is used for the embalming of bodies; and His sovereignty by the gold, which was the ordinary tribute paid to a sovereign. But the feelings which filled their hearts were expressed far more by their offering: their glowing love was revealed by the imperishable gold, a symbol of love; their tender devotion was shown by the frankincense; the oblation which they gave to God of their mortified hearts was represented by the myrrh.

How we must admire the virtuousness of these three Oriental kings! God, who knew the state of their hearts, surely had not found such ardent faith in all Israel! In fact, the Jews had the Messiah in their midst, and they took no notice of Him; the Wise men, although from far away, hastened to seek Him and to acknowledge Him as their God. The Jews treated Him afterwards as the greatest criminal that the earth had ever seen, and crucified Him at last, just at the time when He was giving irrefutable proofs of His divinity; whereas the Wise men, even though they beheld Him lying on straw, in the most helpless and poverty-stricken condition, prostrated themselves at His feet, worshipped Him, and acknowledged Him as their God and Redeemer.

See what a precious treasure is faith! If we were fortunate enough to appreciate this fact in the right way, what care should we not take to preserve it! Today, who will we look to? The indifferent Jews or the Wise men? What do we see in the greater number of Christians? A feeble and tepid faith; and how many are there who have not even the faith of the devil, who at least believes that there is a God, and who trembles in His presence! It is very easy to convince ourselves of this. See, my brethren, God dwells in our churches, and in His church, in His sacred presence there,  we talk, and look about us, very many do not even kneel down, when He shows us the highest degree of His love, namely, at Holy Communion, and at Benediction. The holy Curé noted this centuries ago, and see how it is now, when even this pope will not kneel at the Consecration in his own masses.

Do we believe that there is a God? By all appearances, it is doubtful, or if we do believe it, then why do we offend Him? What use do we make of the precious gifts of our faith, and of the means of salvation which we find in the bosom of the Catholic Church? What connection is there between our manner of living and the sanctity of our religion? Can we say that our life corresponds with the precepts of the Gospel, with the example that Jesus Christ has given us? Do we offer our Savior King the reparation He commands, the sacrifice and adoration He deserves?

That is to say, do we accept with generous contrite hearts the poverty, humiliations, and contempt of these dark times?  Do we prefer Christianity above all honors, and everything which this world possesses and desires? Do we entertain that respect, that longing, and that zeal to draw all the graces we can from the Sacraments, which Our Lord so lavishly bestows upon us?

The holy Curé  chides us, “Let us examine ourselves on this question. Alas! How numerous and bitter are the reproaches which we must make to ourselves regarding these questions! Ought we not, at the sight of so much unbelief and ingratitude to be seriously afraid, that Jesus Christ might take from us the precious gift of faith, as He did from the Jews, and plant it elsewhere, so that a better use will be made of it?”

Why did the Jews cease to be God’s people? Was it not because they misused His graces? Take care, St. Paul exhorts us, that if you do not remain steadfast in the faith, you will be rejected and cast away like the Jews. Imitate, therefore, the Wise men. If you hear the word of God, listen immediately; be strong in your faith in spite of difficulties, and never allow it to waver, but preserve it constantly; so that you, with the Wise men, will have the grace of beholding your God face to face in the hereafter—a blessing which I wish you all. Amen.

Dear Readers, as we read the above thoughts of the Holy Curé, his contrasts between the humble faith of the great Kings and the indifference of God’s own chosen people, we note its relevance to our own time, when even the Christ-child in Nativity scenes is not recognised, much less honored, by so many today.  And so, let us adore Him! We at least, adore Him and once again consecrate our own families and our own lives to His service, Our King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

Today is the best day for renewing the consecration of our families to the Holy Family, so I hope you will consider it!

(St. Jean Marie Vianney. Sermons of the Curé of Ars: Sermons for all the Sundays and Feast Days of the Year. KIC. Kindle Edition.)

For our accustomed Epiphany post see here.